Old Reflections

On my way to meet my granddaughter Leslie for lunch last week, I slipped a snapshot into my purse. Cleaning up my archaic photo albums—things no one has these days; it’s all in the cloud—I’d found duplicates. Most I’d tossed, but this one made me think: “Leslie will like it.” The photo was taken in 1975, at Great Falls Park, Virginia. Leslie and I smile at the camera: she is three and in my lap, two fingers in her mouth.

When I handed it to her, Les exclaimed, “Grandma, you were beautiful.”

“Let me see,” I thought. “Was I really?” But I’d already studied the photo, admiring that young woman’s hair, her slender arms. She thought her arms were fat: what an idiot. I can show her fat arms. She was far from the person I am now and yet, through all her issues and mistakes, she led to me.

I like 70 as the beginning of old age in our time. A financial advisor discussing saving for travel said the 60s are go-go, the 70s slow-go and the 80s no-go. So far, for me he was right. The sixties were fine. I worked right through half of mine, did some domestic traveling, fit in a fast-paced trip to Spain just after the decade ended. Now a plane trip leaves me tired and I need to lie down. The seventies: slow-go.

Conversations about health—or the lack thereof—happen daily in your seventies, it seems. These chronic headaches and plugged ears I wake with, over two years now. I’ve seen the entire medical establishment and no relief. So many friends and family in my age group deal with worse: cancer, COPD, macular degeneration, disintegrating heart valves. My husband had an amputation last year, an enormous life changer. How could we not talk about such things constantly?

That we do is partly our fascination with flaws: the dent in the new fridge, the mole on your cheek, the crack in the ceiling, your eyes go right to it, every time and if you can’t see it, you peer closer or change your angle, so you can: “ah, there it is,” you exclaim with satisfaction.

When I hear from former Spanish students, the first thing is an apology for what a lousy student he/she was or, “I’m sorry I was so much trouble in your class.”

A thirty-year-old man stands before me, apologizing for adolescent failures. Behind his face I see the dim shadow of a boy who was once my student, but beyond that, remember nothing. My own failures of that time I could easily list for you.

Partly it’s that these are age-related ailments, things we still have no good cures for, and those of us who’ve been blessed with health and vigor until now, discover these slowly creeping chronic complaints like rude awakenings, insults, indignities. Oh, not ME. And what do you mean, you can’t fix it? I say I’ve been waking with these headaches for two years and the doctor says, “I have patients who’ve been having them for ten.” Helpful.

Riding a bus from downtown Chicago to our friend’s lakefront apartment, three well-dressed old ladies sat behind us, scarcely taking a breath, relentlessly chronicling their doctor visits and symptoms and ailments. I was in my go-go sixties at the time, not admitting to being old, mentioned this bus experience to our friend, who sighed and said, “that’s all they ever talk about.”

My friend Toni says, “let’s not go there. If we begin talking about our aches and pains we’ll never stop.”

…I find that age has bestowed a kind of comfortable anonymity…age may sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.  —Penelope Lively

I understand Penelope perfectly, because she’s a writer and obviously an introvert as well. Only an introvert could find not being “in the thick of things” a delightful position. We engage in more extroverted lives when young, but old age is a harmonious time for introverted writers. We discover that noisy restaurants upset our digestions and worsen our chronic headaches, that crowds give us a rash, there is nothing at a big box store we need to buy, and travel is only pleasant if we’re the only ones taking in the spectacular view.

An occasional visit with a beloved grandchild, a weekend with no engagements, a walk with a friend, an evening with a choice of books and The Daily Show, mornings with nothing to do but write: I’ll have two of each please.

On the way home from seeing Leslie, I thought about the long, switchback road we travel from youth to age. I remembered being perhaps 22, at the kitchen table of the old house in Queens with Katarina Dubrava Keuning, my grandmother. I turned the soft black pages, looking at sepia photos from some ancient era: my grandmother, perhaps 20, lately off the boat and Ellis Island.

“Nana, I exclaimed, “you were beautiful.”



Posted in Memoir | 5 Comments

The Whittier Neighborhood, 1991

A piece pulled from the archives. So much has changed since 1991: we’re far from the only whites on the block, people don’t stop their cars in the street to visit anymore and there may not be a single boarded up, vacant house in the entire neighborhood. And Andrea? She lives in St. Louis, stopped by with her two children last year, thirty-something and still beautiful.

I live in Northeast Denver. Some people say they live in Northeast Denver and when you visit, the streets are lined with tall, well-pruned elms and maples, beautifully restored Victorians and bungalows with lush lawns. That’s Park Hill. That’s not what I mean.

I mean old houses sagging at the porch line, peeling paint at the eaves, next to a row of crowded apartments with bare dirt yards, Spanish and rap music; and on the other side a tall Denver square, boarded up, its yard choked with weeds. I mean the sections of Five Points, Cole, and Whittier in which Denver’s District 2 cops call people like us urban pioneers, as if we were homesteading in the wilderness.

The cops have their reasons. They see the hard stuff, and so think the neighborhood is rife with crime. We’ve had a taste of that, so they aren’t totally wrong. We were burglarized our first year, and again the third. A drug dealer was shot in the corner apartment the fourth year, and the burglaries stopped. There were domestic violence situations with renters. The cops were here for all of that. But I don’t want to focus on such things, seductive though they are. They are rare events, punctuations to otherwise placid days, weeks, and months in the seven years of our Whittier residency.

Our house had been vandalized during its long early 1980s vacancy. The signs of that abuse were like scars on skin—shattered windows and light fixtures, kicked in bedroom doors, cigarette burns in old shag carpets. We reclaimed this house, made it radiate calm and care, made it ours. It was twice the house we could’ve afforded elsewhere. That’s why we were here—defying conventional wisdom, house was more important to us than location. Self-conscious as if stage-lit, we moved into this basically black area, an area that, despite our many years in Denver, we’d never even had reason to drive through before.

In the weeks we spent painting and repairing and hacking through the jungle in our yard prior to moving in, not a neighbor glanced at us. It was daunting. We had second thoughts, moments of sheer panic. One day we walked past the apartments and a group of small children stopped playing to stare. “Them’s the only white folks we got,” one child proclaimed to the rest.

Months later, as I sprinkled grass seed on the bare dirt of the back yard, Mz. Evelyn waved over her fence two yards away. “Hello!” she called. “You’re doing a wonderful job with the yard.” It was the crack in the ice, the beginning of the thaw. After that we met Jo Bunton-Keel, the tirelessly dedicated director of Eulipions Center for the Arts, and missed her sorely some years later when she moved. We came to know the lovely Frida three houses down, and her two equally lovely daughters. Andrea was eight that year, all legs, and took to running full tilt to greet us when we came home from work, as if she were our child. When that happened we knew we’d made the right decision.

Years ago, I saw Maya Angelou’s magnificent one-woman performance and her advice to the largely white audience was: if you don’t have any black friends, go make some. The unspoken premise of that directive is that cultural diversity is cultural enrichment. Don’t we all agree? Apparently not, in view of the way so many wonderful old houses here remain empty, priced at a fraction of the same houses in Wash Park.

We are still the only white people on our block, seven years later, but now I’m a bit smug about my status. I’d almost resent someone else white moving in, destroying my uniqueness. Now I know the best places to get barbeque, have attended Juneteenth parades and seen “Black Orpheus” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Eulipions in Five Points. I’ve resurrected my rusty Spanish to say, “Baja la música, por favor.” We have the occasional loud night, but usually quiet fills our mornings and sifts into our evenings. Visiting friends remark on the tranquility with surprise, and I feel gratified to deflate one more little stereotype bubble. I’ve re-learned the habit of stopping the car in the middle of the street to chat with a friend sitting on her porch, something I remember from my small town childhood. There, when you did that, other cars waited patiently behind you, or eased around, if there was room. Here, if the cars behind you are from “the hood,” they do the same. Here, Mz. Evelyn is absolutely Mz. Evelyn to everybody, the respect due her 78 years, and belonging to the neighborhood association is like being a member of a crusade.

I’ve watched Frida’s two girls grow up, the oldest going off to college. Andrea, now a poised fifteen-year-old, said to me, “You moved here when I was just a little girl.” Stunned, I realized it was true. In her young life, I’ve always been a neighbor, and this has always been home. And that’s what living here is like for us.

Posted in Memoir, Neighborhood | 5 Comments

The East Denver Y, 1987

Because I have a husband who saves everything, I mean everything, on his hard drive, he recently found some of my writing I hadn’t seen in years. This one is about the old East Denver YMCA in the Clayton neighborhood. We were members there for ten years or so, starting in the mid-1980s. Wellington Webb was Denver’s mayor, Michael Jackson was alive and well, and apparently there was a Babe Ruth movie. The Y left the building in the early 2000s and it sat empty for a decade. If you have facts or memories about that wonderful place, please post them in the comments: I found little information online.

When Phil and I get to the gym, Roger and Steve are usually already there and stay after we leave. They are younger and have more stamina than we do. Steve’s taller, more slender of build, more caramel of color. Roger is darker, shorter, and strikingly handsome. I have seen young women go into a kind of trance when they look at him. Roger and Steve are recent college graduates, come to the gym from work in their suits and ties.

We just missed the excitement. One of the weights on the universal machine was stuck, Steve and some other guys trying to pry it loose, and 180 pounds crashed down on Steve’s fingers. He’s nursing them as we come in, the swelling already apparent.

Rog is having a great time with this event. “The audience saw it coming, saw the weights begin to move. Get your hands out! Get ’em out! But no good. Boom!”

The other guy got slammed too. He went home to put his fingers on ice. We work out for a while. Two others start messing with the machine, trying to see what’s hanging it up.

“Watch out, this sucker’s two for two,” Rog advises, then calls over his shoulder: “Hey, Steve, come give us a hand.”

Signing in at the weight room, I noticed Babe Ruth has been here every day this week, but Rog, who is always here, has not. “Rog,” I say, “did you notice Babe Ruth’s been working out here?”

“Yeah,” he says. “Isn’t that something? The movie comes out and all of a sudden, Babe Ruth sightings.” He shakes his head, amazed, and goes back to lifting.

Warren is another story. He’s a teacher and teachers are all of a type, much like New York taxi drivers. We arrive for our Saturday morning workout and Warren looks at his watch. “A little late today, aren’t we?” We keep thinking he’ll mark us tardy and send us to the office. “No, no, no, you’re doing that wrong. Keep your back straight, see?” Warren is six-five, corrects everyone and gets away with it.

Roger contemplates a kid using the chin up bar as a jungle gym, snaking his skinny body all over it. “When you’re young, you got stomach muscles for nothing and don’t even know it.” We all look down to the place where, in theory, we have stomach muscles. Roger sighs. We all sigh. Maybe another set of crunches.

The East Denver Y’s in a mostly black neighborhood, has a black board of directors and staff. Sometimes Mayor Webb and his entourage pass the weight room on their way to play basketball in the gym. These days there’s a mix of black and white, male and female adults in the weight room. A white guy spots a black guy. A black guy shows a white guy how to do a particular curl. The talk is easy, running through current affairs and sports to the best way to work your lats or the last movie someone saw. If an alien dropped into this gym, he’d have no idea there were race problems in America. Or, if he stayed long enough, he’d know there were some, but not in the weight room.

Roger works at the Tech Center, drives a late-model Beemer with tinted windows. Reason enough to stop him, those suburban cops think. I guess that’s what they think. Roger can’t figure out any other reason why he’s been pulled over for an I.D. check, no ticket issued, three times in the last two years. “Do I look like a drug dealer?” Roger demands, with upturned hands.

Steve examines him critically. “You look like your calves could use some work, that’s what you look like.” Roger’s attention shifts instantly. As all the regulars know, he worries a lot about his lower legs, which he thinks are too skinny.

Glenn is establishing the worth of Michael Jackson’s latest record by telling us how many have been sold.

“Just because it’s popular doesn’t mean it’s good,” Phil observes.

“That’s a grown-up statement,” Roger comments.

“Still, he’s kind of a hero,” Glenn says.

“Why?” Phil demands. “I think he’s always wanted to be a middle class white girl.”

“What?!” Glenn reels under the blow, drops the bar back in its rests.

“Phil’s got a point, man. Look at how he’s changed, that face job–” Steve adds.

“Yeah, and you ever notice how he’s lighter now than he was a few years ago?”

“But, but that’s all for show biz and stuff,” Glenn sputters.

“Probably the next thing you’ll hear,” Roger winds up, going for the gut, “he’ll have a sex change.”

Glenn looks to be in a state of shock. “Sex change,” he mutters, staring into space.

I believe we just did to Glenn what finding out there’s no Santa does to kids. But it can’t all be peaches and cream at the Y.


Posted in Humor, Memoir, Neighborhood | 4 Comments

Gunfire and Rain

We’re watching a movie gun battle when we hear the sound of actual gunfire: rapid shots, from the apartments north of us. I look in time to see four young men, perhaps Hispanic, speed past on foot, one south down the sidewalk, another across the street, two turning into our yard. A bay window on that side of our house provides shelter behind it. Phil orders me away from windows, but not before I hear an agonized exclamation from one of the young men.

Seeing the runners, I dial 911, listen to a recording asking me to wait for the operator, a message repeated in Spanish, then two languages I don’t know and I’ve heard the cry of that young man crouched behind our bay window, so I know he’s hurt. Finally, the calm, methodical 911 operator goes through her questions as she’s supposed to do and I’m thinking, he’s shot, do you hear me, so I repeat several times, “I think he’s been shot.”

Phil stays where he can see them, verifies there are two: white shirt, striped shirt, baseball caps, information I relay. The operator says they’ve had several calls and officers are en route and how many shots were there and do I want the police to contact me. I don’t know how many shots; they were fast and in the midst of Mexican movie shots. From his guard post, Phil announces that the two are leaving. Out front, we see flashing lights, patrol cars, an ambulance. The young men hurry to those lights. By the time we step outside, police have taped off the scene and EMTs are treating the one wounded.

When we moved to this city neighborhood in 1984, there was a turf war between Bloods and Crips and many such events, including one on our block. Then as now, the shooting happened in the apartments. Then as now, those who did the shooting and being shot were young Black or Hispanic males. Then, homeowners were mostly black. Now, thirty years later, mostly white folk tumble onto front yards. My neighbor who has a view of that side of my house says, “when they saw me looking at them, they said, ‘get away from the window: the guys with guns are still out there.’” Wounded and yet trying to warn someone else. “He bled all over your garden hose,” my neighbor adds.

The ambulance takes the young man away. He was shot in the arm. I mention the blood to a tall young cop, but perhaps it doesn’t matter, since they have the injured party? He takes a look, finds the shiny red rounds consistent with the wound he’s already seen, wanted to be sure there wasn’t another victim. “These guys aren’t gang-related,” he says. “They were just outside in time for the drive-by.” He asks me not to clean it up; they might want photos. The cop seems frazzled, says they had another shooting this morning and whatever beef these gangs have with each other right now, it doesn’t seem to be resolving.

We stay out a bit longer, learn our neighbor to the south is having trouble with her arthritis. Neighbors to the north were just finishing dinner, came out with wine glasses, introduce their guests. The young woman next door is freaked, won’t stay outside with us. She’s new. I want to tell her she’s white and has little to fear: living in the same neighborhood doesn’t mean living in the same world. Instead, I observe, “We haven’t had one of these for years. I thought we were done with them, what with gentrification and economic recovery.”

But think of Baltimore: for some there’s been no recovery, as a black professor from Johns Hopkins points out. “I have no problems with police,” he says, “but I’m not on those streets.” The most cursory search shows U. S. race riots erupt every few years. Violence gets media attention while the flames burn. When the smoke clears, we don’t fix what matters. In Denver a new generation of young men who see no hope of a better future have again joined gangs. They are again failing to learn what our entire species seems incapable of learning, that the revenge game, once begun, has no end.

We finish our fatalistic Mexican movie, “Colosio: The Assassination,” in which the truth seekers die and the bad guys get away with it. Except for a dog barking incessantly in someone’s backyard, the neighborhood is quiet, and soon after we go to bed the dog falls silent too. The next morning is overcast, and at breakfast we read the Sunday paper, which has nothing about our incident. A steady rain begins. Outside my bay window, dried blood is being washed away.

Posted in Neighborhood | 3 Comments